Sheriff's tenure in office has not been without controversy

mbbaker@sunherald.comAugust 30, 2013 

JACKSON COUNTY -- Mike Byrd's tenure as Jackson County's sheriff has been filled with contention and discord.

Byrd, who's been in office for 13 years, has come under fire for misusing his official powers.

He's been accused of assault on a handcuffed prisoner and of targeting people for arrest for personal or political gain.

His department is facing a series of multimillion-dollar lawsuits.

Here's a look at some of the headlines Byrd has made in recent years.

Task force shooting

In July 2012, Byrd came under scrutiny after a shooting went unreported at the office of the Narcotics Task Force of Jackson County.

The task force consisted of Jackson County deputies and police officers from Ocean Springs, Gautier, Moss Point and Pascagoula.

Moss Point Police Chief Keith Davis later learned of the shooting through sources other than Byrd's office and called for an independent investigation. The Mississippi Bureau of Investigation conducted the probe.

Even as word of the shooting spread, Byrd offered no details, saying only that it was accidental.

The Sun Herald independently obtained the reports about the shooting after Byrd denied the newspaper's request to see them.

According to the reports, the shooting occurred July 31, 2012. Then-Cmdr. Jackie Trussell had shot at the feet of another agent, also a deputy assigned to the task force, and injured him. But no paramedics were called. Instead, Trussell phoned another officer, then-Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics agent Todd McGehee, to bring a first aid kit to the office. Trussell and Shawn Kimmerly, another deputy on the task force, stitched up the wound.

As a result of the shooting, Ocean Springs, Gautier, Moss Point and Pascagoula severed ties with the task force. Gautier, Moss Point and Pascagoula later formed their own drug task force.

Child pornography

The Sheriff's Office experienced problems after more and more of its child pornography suspects started being absolved of charges when grand juries found insufficient evidence to indict them.

Suspects in the state are prosecuted on a charge of child exploitation.

In 2008, sheriff's investigators arrested one person on a child exploitation charge; in 2009, they arrested three. In 2010, the state Attorney General's Office announced the formation of the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, comprising 61 regional task forces nationwide. Soon, Byrd announced investigator Hope Thornton was assigned to investigate such cases. She was joined by former investigator Linda Jones, and arrests started to soar.

By the end of 2010, Byrd was touting the success of the investigations, with 23 arrests made that year. In 2011, it was 19, and at least seven in 2012.

The Sun Herald reviewed grand jury reports over 2½ years and learned 18 of those cases had been dismissed for lack of evidence.

District Attorney Tony Lawrence gave examples of problems with the cases:

n Forensic examinations failed to show child porn on the computers.

n There was no proof the images were of people under age 18.

n The conduct in the material was not sexually explicit.

n Multiple users were accessing a device without proof of who "actually and willfully" possessed the images.

n Damaged evidence could not be examined by a forensic examiner to confirm the presence of child porn.

'Acute Political Emergency'

Among those arrested in 2011 on a child porn possession charge, as well as charges of embezzlement and molestation, was then-Ocean Springs Alderman James Hagan. Those charges were among the cases were dropped for lack of evidence.

But Hagan filed a federal lawsuit seeking $30 million in damages against the county, the Sheriff's Office, Byrd, investigators Thornton, Jones, Eddie Clark and Chad Heck, and the county's insurance carrier.

Hagan accuses Byrd, Thornton, Jones, Clark and Heck, along with the others, of violating Hagan's civil and constitutional rights, inducing others to give false testimony, engaging in perjury, false imprisonment, defamation, witness tampering, gross negligence and falsifying search warrant and affidavits filed in his case.

Hagan, who supported one of Byrd's opponents in the last election, has said the Sheriff's Office targeted him and others for arrest, including Ocean Springs Alderman Matt McDonnell. McDonnell was never arrested.

Hagan's lawsuit says Byrd had such a habit of going after his enemies that his employees had an acronym for such investigations -- APE, short for Acute Political Emergency.

Alleged assault on prisoner

In 2012, Byrd failed to disclose information about the theft of a patrol car, though his deputies took the suspect, John Mark Stahl, into custody in Mobile County, Ala.

The Sun Herald has interviewed Stahl, who said Byrd twice kicked him in the groin and a deputy put "a boot in his face" and "stomped (him) on the head" when he was arrested in June 2012 for stealing a deputy's patrol car.

Stahl said FBI agents have questioned him in the Rankin County jail about what happened.

Stahl said he was handcuffed, standing and facing a patrol car when Byrd showed up. Stahl said Byrd told him he had embarrassed Byrd and his deputies. Byrd kicked him in the groin, he said, then backed up a little and kicked him again.

Benefit bank account

In February, the Sun Herald made a request to inspect and copy the financial records of the Jackson County Sheriff's Benefit Bank Account. Byrd initially denied the newspaper access, saying it was a nonprofit account. The Sun Herald learned from the Secretary of State's Office and the Internal Revenue Service the account is not registered as a nonprofit. Instead, it is registered under the county's tax identification number.

In July, Byrd decided to turn over the account records after the Sun Herald submitted a second public information request.

The records showed the account has been used over the years to pay thousands of dollars for flowers for funerals and memorial services; to fund Sheriff's Office Christmas parties; to pay for cakes and gifts for baby showers, birthdays and retirement celebrations; and to buy thousands of plaques for deputies.

The fund also paid $97 the county's finance department wouldn't pay for six Long Island iced teas, a glass of Beringer wine, 12 shots of Burnett's Vanilla Vodka, two Crown Royals and a cognac at the Preservation Grill for a sequestered jury. A deputy said he was responsible for the bill because he'd forgotten to tell jurors they had to pay for their own drinks. He said he didn't have the money to cover the cost.

The account also paid to cremate a German shepherd deputies had shot and killed when they went to the wrong home to arrest a capital murder suspect, and for a dog to "replace dog shot per SO-1." SO-1 is the sheriff.

Other lawsuits

n Former Pascagoula heart surgeon David Bruce Allen was arrested in 2009, accused of growing marijuana on his 50-acre farm on Mississippi 613 in the Escatawpa community known as the Blue Hole. Allen went to trial, but the jury was unable to reach a verdict. All charges against Allen were eventually dropped.

When District Attorney Tony Lawrence announced he was dropping the charges, he said, in part, "the state of Mississippi … does not feel there would be evidence beyond a reasonable doubt to convict … (Allen) … in light of the facts that there was no actual grown marijuana found on the property …."

Allen filed a federal lawsuit, saying narcotics agents "burned property in the front yard in a bonfire fashion, acted like hooligans yelling and screaming about this was going to be their property, how this would be their vacation resort and shooting range, campground, fishing place, scuba training facility, etc, (and) played pool and ping pong on their tables."

Jackson County, Byrd and agents from the narcotics task force have denied allegations of wrongdoing outlined in the suit. "The defendants deny their participation in any wrongdoing at (Allen's farm) or at any other location," according to a motion filed by attorney Jackye C. Bertucci on behalf of the county, Byrd and the task force.

n Coast neurologist Matthew Wallack is seeking $25 million in a federal lawsuit against the county, Byrd, the narcotics task force, former NTF commander Lt. Curtis Spiers and others, including Biloxi police, alleging Wallack's civil, constitutional and human rights were violated. Biloxi police arrested Wallack on a charge of possession of a prescription painkiller, though the charge was dropped after a key witness died. Shortly after the arrest, Jackson County narcotics agents searched Wallack's Ocean Springs office, seizing medication Spiers said Wallack had prescribed to other people. Byrd and Spiers said Wallack had been under investigation for years for prescription-drug complaints, some involving patients who died under his care. Wallack, however, was never arrested on any charge in Jackson County.

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